Virginian Buck Morton in Lincoln County War

By David S. Turk
10/8/2018 • Wild West Magazine

His letter foreshadowed his sad fate.

Best known for heading a subposse that killed English-born rancher John Henry Tunstall and, in turn, being gunned down by an opposing “posse” that included Billy the Kid, William S. “Buck” Morton was a descendant of Virginia gentry who had scurried out of his native state at age 14 to avoid the law. Some eight years later in New Mexico Territory, he became caught up in a power struggle between two rival Lincoln County entrepreneurs that led to a deadly game of retaliation. Tunstall’s death not only touched off the Lincoln County War but also brought Billy the Kid down on Morton’s back. Unlike most gunmen of the Old West, however, young Buck had enough time to write a letter that foreshadowed his fate.

Born in the mid-1850s in Charlotte Court House, Va., Buck Morton was the son of dry goods merchant David Holmes Morton (related to the famous Randolphs and Marshalls of Virginia) and Joanna Cabell (related to plantation owners in Lynchburg, Va.). David’s business was ruined during the Civil War, and soon afterward, Joanna died. David went to New York City to find work, leaving his children behind in the care of various relations. Buck was adopted by his mother’s brother and remained at Charlotte Court House.

In May 1869, 14-year-old Morton, along with his cousins Griffin and John Marshall and a friend, Fred Beal, went to the courthouse to listen to a former slave turned politician, Joe Holmes. As Holmes spoke to the crowd, a shot rang out from the group of four boys. Holmes fell dead, and the boys fled. Which one fired the shot is not known, but relatives packed them all on a westbound train to escape arrest. Soon thereafter, David Morton died.

Buck Morton, now an orphan and a fugitive, may have gone with his cousins to Missouri first, but family letters suggest the boys moved about frequently before arriving in New Mexico Territory. In March 1877, Morton became foreman of a cow camp on the Pecos River for the Lincoln mercantile team of Lawrence Murphy and James J. Dolan, rivals of cattlemen John Chisum and Tunstall. One or both of his two Marshall cousins soon left for Montana and Idaho territories.

William Bonney, best known to history as Billy the Kid, arrived at the cow camp sometime in 1877. Bonney was friendly enough but was not above stealing horses from Chisum. Then again, neither was Morton. But they still had their differences. Morton found reason (a girl may have also been involved) to criticize the newcomer, and the Kid left the camp with a personal grudge against him.

By February 1878 tension between the two factions had made a “war” inevitable. Tunstall, backed by lawyer Alexander McSween, was impeding Dolan’s plans to dominate business in Lincoln. Sheriff William Brady sent Deputy Jacob B. Matthews to serve warrants against Tunstall. Soon thereafter, Buck Morton was deputized. On the 18th, Morton headed a 13-man subposse that included the outlaw Jesse Evans, who had supposedly lost a horse to Tunstall. Morton was eager to catch Tunstall, telling his men, “My knife is sharp, and I feel like scalping someone.”

Around dusk, Morton’s group spotted Tunstall, who was riding toward Lincoln in the company of Billy the Kid and others. Exactly what happened next is uncertain, but Morton, Evans and Evans’ henchman Tom Hill caught Tunstall alone and filled him with lead. Morton later said that Tunstall, when told to surrender, fired at them. More likely, Tunstall tried to surrender but was shot down anyway. One account says that Morton shot Tunstall through the upper chest and that after the Englishman fell face down, Hill shot him in the back of the head.

Tunstall’s death angered the Kid and many others who saw it as coldblooded murder. Justice of the Peace John B. Wilson issued warrants and appointed Dick Brewer a deputy constable. Brewer, in turn, formed a posse that included the Kid. Calling themselves the Regulators, they chased down Morton and another man, Frank Baker, near the Penasco River on March 6. The two prisoners were told they would be transported to Lincoln, where Sheriff Brady would no doubt be sympathetic to their plight. On March 8, the group stayed overnight at Chisum’s South Spring Ranch, where they were joined by a former Dolan sympathizer, William McCloskey, whom they didn’t trust. As for Morton, he didn’t trust the Regulators to bring him to Lincoln alive. He made that clear in a letter he penned that night to Richmond, Va., attorney Hunter Holmes Marshall, the father of Buck’s cousin Griffin:

Some time since I was called upon to assist in serving a writ of attachment on some property wherein resistance had been made against the law.

The parties had started off with some horses which should be attached, and I as deputy sheriff with a posse of twelve men was sent in pursuit of same. We overtook them, and while attempting to serve the writ our party was fired on by one J.H. Tunstall, the balance of our party having ran off. The fire was returned and Tunstall was killed. This happened on the 18th of February.

The 6th of March I was arrested by a constable’s party, accused of the murder of Tunstall. Nearly all of the sheriff’s party fired at him, and it is impossible for any one to say who killed him. When the party which came to arrest me, and one man who was with me, first saw us about one hundred yards distant, we started in another direction when they (eleven in number) fired nearly one hundred shots at us. We ran about five miles, when both of our horses fell and we made a stand. When they came up, they told us if we would give up, they would not harm us.

After talking awhile, we gave up our arms and were made prisoners. There was one man in the party who wanted to kill me after I had surrendered, and was restrained with the greatest difficulty by others of the party. The constable himself said he was sorry we gave up as he had not wished to take us alive. We arrived here last night enroute to Lincoln. I have heard that we were not to be taken alive to that place. I am not at all afraid of their killing me, but if they should do so, I wish that the matter should be investigated and the parties dealt with according to law. If you do not hear from me in four days after receipt of this, I would like you to make inquiries about the affair.

The names of the parties who have arrested me are: R.M. Brewer, J.G. Skurlock, Chas. Bowdre, Wm. Bonney, Henry Brown, Frank McNab, “Wayt,” Sam Smith, Jim French (and two others named McCloskey and Middleton who are friends). There are two parties in arms, and violence is expected. The military are at the scene of disorder and trying to keep peace. I will arrive at Lincoln the night of the 10th and will write you immediately if I get through safe. Have been in the employ of Jas. J. Dolan & Co. of Lincoln for eighteen months since the 9th of March ’77 and have been getting $60.00 per month. Have about six hundred dollars due me from them and some horses, etc., at their cattle camps.

I hope if it becomes necessary that you will look into this affair, if anything should happen, I refer you to T.B. Catron, U.S. Attorney of Santa Fe, N.M. and Col. Rynerson, District Attorney, La Mesilla, N.M. They both know all about the affair as the writ of attachment was issued by Judge Warren Bristol, La Mesilla, N.M. and everything was legal. If I am taken safely to Lincoln, I will have no trouble, but will let you know.

If it should be as I suspect, please communciate [sic] with my brother, Quin Morton, Lewisburg, W.Va. Hoping that you will attend to this affair if it becomes necessary and excuse me for troubling you if it does not.

The next morning, March 9, the Regulators and their prisoners stopped at the Roswell post office and handed the letter over to postmaster Marshall Ashmun (“Ash”) Upson (later the ghostwriter for Pat Garrett’s 1882 book The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid). The party continued west to Blackwater Canyon (Aqua Negra), some 20 miles from Roswell, where Morton, Baker and McCloskey were shot dead. One of Brewer’s men, Frank McNab, said that Morton shot McCloskey, but more likely the Regulators killed him along with the two prisoners. The Dolan faction naturally accused the Regulators of murder. Lincoln County would know many more questionable killings in the months ahead. As for Morton’s letter, H.H. Marshall supposedly received it on March 25, 1878, but how he reacted to it is unknown.

 

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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